I was keen to find out what visitors made of these images, especially because some of them are rather mysterious and there is so much we do not know. The studio shots of a man posing in women’s clothing, for instance, were found randomly among Krafft-Ebing’s papers after the sexologist’s death. The photographs must have been taken in the second half of the 19th century, but they were never published or discussed in writing. Visitors immediately noted the elaborate studio setting and the careful selection of props and costumes – we talked a lot about the beautiful shoes in particular!
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Looking at large-scale reproductions of the images, we also noticed how the photographs had been manipulated: if you look closely, you can see what can best be described as 19th-century Photoshopping. In several of the images, the contours of the hips, bottom and feet are redefined, so as to make the body appear more ‘feminine’.
What do we make of these images? It is impossible to know who the man in these pictures was and we can only speculate as to why they were taken in the first place. Given that cross-dressing was heavily regulated and even criminalised in many European countries at the time, visitors discussed whether these photographs offered the subject an opportunity to try out and capture a different side of himself or herself, one that could possibly not have been expressed publicly.
Public images or private interests?
Yet we also wondered how private these images really were. Perhaps they were circulated among a small group of people with similar interests or desires. After all, how did they end up in Krafft-Ebing’s possession? Did the sexologist purchase them or did a medical colleague or patient pass them on?
What might Krafft-Ebing have made of these pictures? Based on what he wrote about cross-dressing in his book ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’ (1886), he might have thought that the individual had a “dress fetish” and was sexually aroused by wearing female clothing. He might also have looked at the pictures and wondered whether the individual was expressing homosexual desires or a wish to be a woman.
Discussing these questions in the exhibition, it became clear that it is impossible to offer definitive answers. After all, some visitors cautioned, the images might not have anything to do with the expression of innermost desires or a deep-rooted sense of self at all. Perhaps the subject was just having fun testing out or trying on different gender roles?